Be the MOOC resistance

Free Cooper Union rally, Dec. 8, 2012






Yesterday I was blindsided by an email. It was from the Provost of our university (where I am both a graduate student and a teaching assistant). The email began with this ominous line: “the rampant emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) are creating the perception of a game-changing, disruptive educational approach that has the potential to transform both access to education as well as the methods we use to teach our own students and the world.” It went on to say other things, but let’s stick with this troubling sentence for a moment.

First of all, the Provost has done an excellent job scaring students and faculty. MOOCs are “rampantly” “emerging,” he says. This makes it sound like MOOCs possess an agency all their own, as if they are rising up out of the shadows to take control of our universities. In other words, the sentence does not identity the true agents behind the “rampant emergence” of MOOCs: on the one hand, wealthy, private, and prestigious universities like Stanford and MIT; and, on the other hand, for-profit corporations like Coursera, and get this, even a for-profit company founded by a Stanford University professor, Udacity. The university-industrial complex in all its glory.

The point is: it’s not just that MOOCs appeared out of nowhere. They are the product of certain people with certain ideas (and entrepreneurial ambitions), and we must take a critical look at their motivations.

Next, the Provost said that MOOCs are “creating the perception of a game-changing , disruptive educational approach.” Well, are they actually a game-changer? Or do they just provide the “perception” of a game-changer? The fact is, MOOCs are new and largely untested. No one is sure if they really will be a game-changer in higher education. Perhaps the “perception” of such a sea change exists, but who is doing the perceiving? Is this the perception of college administrators who spend more time thinking about revenue streams than about students’ needs?

And what does the Provost mean by “disruptive”? Disruptive for whom? Will MOOCs disrupt the educational opportunities for some students? What kind of cost-benefit analysis will be conducted to comprehend the extent of this disruption? Will MOOCs disrupt the market for university labor? Will MOOCs result in the downsizing of university faculty? Just to say that a “disruption” is eminent puts everyone on their guard. Some scholars have even argued that MOOCs will bring about the end of the physical college campus itself: that the ivory towers will close their doors (rather than open them wider) and that campus buildings will be put up for sale. We need to interrogate the nature of any planned “disruption”: who is doing the disrupting, who will be disrupted, and what are the power relations inherent in the process.

Finally, the Provost says that MOOCs have ” the potential to transform both access to education as well as the methods we use to teach our own students and the world.” The sentence does not say, however, whether this transformation in “access to education” will mean opening more doors, or closing them. There will certainly be both winners and losers in terms of access to education. When the university puts more initiative (financial and ideological) into MOOCs, who among our community will be denied opportunities to take a hands-on course in the  art or theater department, or engage in an intimate discussion in a history or philosophy seminar, because our university put more faith in MOOCs than it did in previous visions of public higher education (that our state hasn’t even stood behind, fought for, or fully funded in decades)? Surely the public university system—which already complains about its lack of resources—will not be able to keep doors to the physical classrooms “open to all” when they start with the assumption that the “masses” are best served by MOOCs and don’t need a physical learning environment.

But the more unsettling aspect of this is the part about teaching “our own students and the world.” What is this distinction between “our students” and “the world”? Is it because “our students” are the university’s customers who pay tuition and fees, and MOOCs, on the other hand, will provide education to non-customers—so is that what the university means by the euphemistic “our students”: really, our customers? Or maybe it is the MOOC students who are actually the customers here, since the university does not consider them as “students”? And the larger question is: why would a public state university system, like SUNY, seek to provide services to customers beyond “our students”? Would it not be better to enlarge the tent of who is considered a “student” in the first place—by making a college education free and open to all—rather than draw artificial bounds between “our students” and MOOC users? And is it not the mission of the university to serve, first and foremost, the people of our state? At a time when so many New Yorkers do not have a college degree, and so many cannot afford to go to college, why is SUNY seeking to teach “the world” rather than “our students”? This represents a huge failure of responsibility on the part of our university system.

Even still, what does the Provost mean by teaching the world? What kind of imperialistic notions lurk behind this phrase? A conception of the rest of the world as needing American education? Or is this a manifestation of global capitalism in which publicly-funded state universities in the United States transform themselves into global commodity providers seeking consumers (not students) in underdeveloped markets (like in other countries where students previously have not had access to American educational commodities)? The whole idea of exporting education online to “the world” is dangerously wrong-headed. It not only conceives of education as a global commodity, but also as charity, and it substitutes a top-down, U.S.-branded product to export to the world in place of bottom-up, grassroots, horizontal education within our own communities.

The whole MOOC program seems antithetical to the mission of SUNY. If we are a public university established by the state to provide low-cost (ideally, free) education to the people of this state, then why is the university seeking markets halfway around the world rather than providing services to the youth of upstate New York towns and passed-over neighborhoods in the great city of New York? And why is it, at the most fundamental level, that our university is more interested in exploring global MOOCs than in exploring the halls of our state capitol in Albany? When the state has continued to fail to “free” education to the masses—to fulfill the original promise of the public university system: free education for all—why do we not have full-time employees at our university who lobby Albany, who champion the cause of tuition-free, open access, public higher education for the people? Instead they have secret discussions about MOOCs and the privatization of our learning.

Why is this so worrying? For one, because the university is already quietly (even secretly) exploring MOOCs. They have a whole section on the university website devoted to it (although they only provided students with a link yesterday). The Provost has set up a task force to explore bringing MOOCs to Stony Brook. The task force has two chairs and twenty-five members. Of those twenty-seven people, only three are students. And of those, two are graduate students and only one is an undergraduate student! At a school with over 16,000 undergraduates, and over 8,000 graduate students, and only probably a few thousand faculty and staff, the task force is 89% faculty and stuff, and only 11% students (and only 4% undergraduates). If the university was really a democracy, undergraduates would comprise 60% of the task force, and graduate students another 30%, with faculty and staff the remaining 10% or so. Do we really need administrators to decide the future for us? Or do we want student control?

More worrisome, the task force includes eight sub-committees, each with four to six members. But of those eight sub-committees, students only serve on two committees: “Platform” and “Assessment.” As for “Inventory,” “Finance,” “Legal,” “Structure,” “Impact,” and “Branding,” these sub-committees contain no student members. Perhaps students need not serve on the “Legal” sub-committee, but what about “Finance”? Should not undergraduate students have a say in the financial consequences of providing MOOCs at our school? If providing MOOCs means hiring technical staff who only deal with MOOCs, will all students be saddled with higher technology fees, or higher tuition, to cover the costs?

And what about “Impact”? The Impact sub-committee plans to address questions such as the following:

“How will MOOCs positively enhance the SB experience?
How will MOOCS affect adversely the SB experience?
Hybrid Model – on-campus resident with MOOCs options
MOOCs and the SB mission – friend or foe?
Can MOOCs solve transfer and pipe problems? Identify those plugs.
Unique student learning outcomes expected?”

This sub-committee will be discussing the impact of MOOCs on the “SB (Stony Brook) experience,” but there is not even one student on the committee to explain what that experience is, or should be!!

How do we become the MOOC resistance?

1) First of all, if you are a Stony Brook student, faculty, or staff member: attend public meetings on Feb. 11 and Feb. 13 and raise your voice. More information here.

But what can we do across all colleges and universities—across the private/public spectrum, across the city and the country, even across the enrolled/non-enrolled student divide? (Because you don’t have to be enrolled at a college or university to be a student! Not at the Free U!)

2) How about this idea, from twitter?


The Massive Open Offline Course (MOOffC). Imagine if the Free University facilitated such a course. What would the topic be? Discuss MOOCs, perhaps? Or we might gather now and then for MOOffCs  on pertinent topics such as: war, race, labor. We could gather in different public spaces, providing a free and open environment for horizontal learning. But instead of having many small courses on various themes, as in the traditional Free U, we would all be part of one “massive” course (with break-out groups and discussions, of course). How many people would attend a Massive Open Offline Course? Could we reach the tens of thousands who register for online MOOCs?

3) What about organizing students within MOOCs? Since anyone can register for any MOOC, might some students sign up for MOOCs and then engage/organize with other students in the MOOC to discuss the very nature of the MOOC? Think about how student organizing works on campuses—now how would it work online? Imagine a MOOC class (of thousands of students) rising up to take control of their MOOC and turning a top-down, vertical learning environment into a medium for horizontal collaborative learning?

4) What about providing alternative MOOCs? Could we embrace the technology and provide our own massive open online courses? Would we want to? How would our approach differ from that of universities and for-profit companies?

These are just random ideas. Do with them what you will. But remember to be on the lookout for MOOCs. They are coming to a university near you, and only you can be the MOOC resistance!

[The views expressed in this blog are sometimes those of individuals and sometimes that of the collective. Today’s post reflects the views solely of the author listed above.]